WASH and Health


Diseases related to unsafe drinking water and lack of sanitation are among the biggest challenges in global public health today. Unsafe drinking water leads to diarrheal disease and further compromises already sick people, particularly those with weakened immune systems. The widespread deadly impact of water-related diseases is too easily overlooked, but these diseases kill more people every month than the South Asian tsunami did in 2004.

“Water-Related” Diseases

The World Health Organization (WHO) characterizes 25 major diseases as “water-related.” The death toll from these mostly preventable diseases is 3.4 million deaths per year, the vast majority of whom are children.[1] In 2011, diarrhea killed an estimated 700,000 children,[2] and remains the major killer among water-related diseases.[3] Six million people worldwide are blind due to the effects of trachoma, and 150 million more are in need of preventative treatment.[4] At any given time, people suffering from waterborne diseases occupy more than half of the world’s hospital beds.[5]


Most of the deaths and diseases associated with unsafe water and inadequate sanitation are preventable. We already know the answer to this problem; we need to scale up our response. Access to sanitation, the practice of good hygiene, and a safe water supply could save 1.5 million children a year.[6] Simple handwashing, can reduce the incidence of childhood respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, by at least 24 percent,[7] and diarrheal disease by 42-47 percent.[8]

 For more information, contact Cecilia Snyder, 202-293-4003, csnyder@WASHadvocates.org

[1] WHO, 2001. Water for Health: Taking Charge. http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/wwdreport.pdf.

[2] Fischer Walker, C, et al., 2013. Global burden of childhood pneumonia and diarrhoea. The Lancet, 381(9875):1405-1416. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(13)60222-6/fulltext.

[3] World Water Assessment Programme/UNESCO, 2004. Water: Facts and Figures. http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/water/wwap/facts-and-figures/all-facts-wwdr3/fact-39-water-and-health/.

[4] WHO, 2001. Water-related diseases: trachoma. http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/diseases/trachoma/en/.

[5] UNDP, 2006. Human Development Report: beyond scarcity: power, poverty and the global water crisis. http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/HDR06-complete.pdf.

[6] WSP/World Bank, 2013. Sanitation Saves Lives. http://www.wsp.org/featuresevents/features/sanitation-saves-lives.

[7] Rabie, T. & Curtis, V., 2008. Handwashing and risk of respiratory infections: a quantitative systematic review. Tropical Medicine & International Health, 11(3):258-267. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16553905.

[8] Curtis, V. & Cairncross, S., 2003. Effect of washing hands with soap on diarrhoea risk in the community: a systematic review. Lancet Infectious Diseases, 3(5):275-281. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12726975.

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